Exclusive interview with Mysteries at the Museum star Don Wildman

Don Wildman
Don Wildman travels the world uncovering Mysteries at the Museum for Travel Channel

Part of the fraternity of devilishly interesting world travelers who get their own TV shows, Mysteries of the Museum host Don Wildman has the plum job of unearthing relics from the world’s greatest institutions to reveal incredible secrets and backstories from the past.

Historical yarns are unspooled and reexamined by Wildman who examines each artifact on this long-running series to illuminate the hidden treasures that are found in the midst of sensational crimes and bizarre encounters.

Wildman’s voice-over narration and own investigatory work nets archival footage, interviews and often times are accompanied by well-produced re-creations. Intrigue and wonder? Don has loads of tales to bust out and entertain you with and Travel Channel’s series has become a huge addiction for many Mysteries addicts.

Obscura from far-flung places and digging up the backstories are part of the CV of Don Wildman, a stalwart fixture on several networks.

His work on Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Museum was preceded by the popular Monumental Mysteries, Greatest Mysteries specials, Off Limits, and before Travel Channel, hosting History’s adventure series Cities of the Underworld. For Discovery he hosted the three-part historical investigation series, Filthy Cities.

On the premiere of Mysteries at the Museum, the episode titled Terror Ship, Wicked Stepmother and Message in a Bottle will cover the legendary ghost ship, the S.O.S. as well as a “truly evil stepmother” and a crime spree like never before seen,  and a message in a bottle sent over 100 years ago.

We spoke to Don Wildman ahead of the premiere and discovered a potential cross-pollination between he and Josh Gates might just work:

Monsters and Critics: You’re part of a cool fraternity of men that get to travel the world and be on TV and are known by your last name. Like [Mike] Rowe and [Josh] Gates and [Andrew] Zimmern and the late, great [Anthony] Bourdain. When you’re out and about, how do you process that?

Don Wildman: Great question. Thank you. Just yesterday I was pulling my surfboard out of my car and the 18-year-old kid who takes the $10 for the parking lot over at Long Point comes over and says, “Can I take my picture with you? My family and I watch your shows all the time.”

Not only is that flattering, but it’s a thrill to me. My dad was a history teacher so if I can get kids like that interested in history just by being a guy on TV who you can take a picture with, fantastic. That’s a home run to me. The stories of history are the best ones of all and that’s why anything I get to do on television turns out good.

I love being a curator of information that everybody relates to in some way or another. There’s this inbred passion in us all for history and I am merely the guy who gets the plum job of telling you about it. I’m sure there was something strategic that I did along the way that made that happen, but most of all it’s dumb luck and I feel like the luckiest guy on earth for that reason.

M&C: You said in a previous interview that I read of yours that “Americans who can afford to do so have a responsibility to travel. For people all over the world, our country is about freedom from oppression. Personally, I believe we are presently suffering from a fearful isolationism in many quarters.” Expand, please.

Don Wildman: I still feel that way, yes. Yeah. I mean, a couple of years ago the White House sponsored, under Obama, an event that was to address the fact that young students are no longer going in the numbers they used to go abroad to study. They started a movement called #studyabroad to address a dire need for Americans to be part of the international community, especially at a young age.

Not only is it a resume item that has to be on there now to be considered for any upper-level jobs, but also it’s America’s role in the world. The success of America is based on our thrusting forth in the early 20th century and becoming a force of good in the world for freedom and democracy.

I grew up in the middle 20th century, the son of a very patriotic man who fought in World War II and that role means a lot to me. These days it is being very much questioned by a lot of people in this country, I think unfairly so.

If we can do television and encourage people to consider the world, not only as a playground where they can have good times and vacations, which is everyone’s right, but also to understand the issues that America…that the nation plays a huge part in globally.

The idea that we can turn inward at this point in history is ridiculous and so travel is a way to facilitate everyone’s understanding of the world and to make it a friendlier, safer place for everybody.

You know, 99 per cent of what happens in the world is fun, terrific, educational, thrilling, inspiring. There’s this 1 per cent of stuff — I’m using random numbers of course — that effects people negatively.

I believe it’s not only a cherished right to travel the world, it’s somewhat of a responsibility and I hope that parents are encouraging their children to think of the world as their own, not something to be turned away from.

M&C: You were in Scotland recently, hanging out with Josh Gates and probably having some really good single malt. What were you up to?

Don Wildman: I am really not kidding when I say it was a random meeting in Inverness, Scotland. The second random meeting that happened in the world between me and Josh. The last one was in a remote place called Bariloche, Argentina.

He walked up to me in a tiny little airport there and said, “What are you doing here?”. He was doing a Nazi escapist show and I was doing a story on…I can’t even remember what I was doing a story on.

Anyway, these were two completely honestly random occurrences. We were having a deep discussion that night about being exhausted from being on the road. The poor man. I mean, he has a much harder schedule than I have and he has two small children at home which is really difficult.

I was hearing him out as a good friend and saying, “Yes, as much as we’re blessed with amazing careers, it’s tough sometimes.” Especially for him.

That being said, yes, we had — I drank the Scotch, he did not because he was driving that night. That’s a nice statement about Josh Gates. It’s also a nice statement about the Scots.

They are dead serious about no DUIs. The Scottish people are the best I’ve ever seen at not drinking and driving, which is so ironic, right?

M&C: Right.

Don Wildman: You know, you think of the Scots and the Irish as like “we go to pubs all the time, we drink”. You cannot put a drop of Scotch in anybody with a car key in their hand. They will not do it and that’s a statement on the policing in Scotland about this very important issue.

M&C: We were just in Scotland last November and toured Auchentoshan which is outside of Glasgow and there’s a history to it. It was blown up during the war and people died and they say it’s haunted. Are you ever going do a Mysteries at the Museum haunted Scotch distillery tour edition or more in Scotand?

Don Wildman: I know that we’ve done a lot of stories in the show about Scotland. This was only my third trip to Scotland I think, and I have never even been to Edinburgh, but I can’t wait. I’m trying to write something right now. My great goal in life is to be in the Edinburgh Festival.

I want to be on a stage in the Edinburgh Festival and I want to do a show about something I’m writing about right now because I love the place. The Scots are really cool. It’s just like the Irish are.

I’m a big Anglophile and UK person so it all is beloved to me but those particular places are really neat. Would we do a special on it? There was a format that we used a few years ago that did focus on particular places and do all the stories from those places, we kind of tilted away from that and back to the standard format just because people liked variety more than they wanted to be in one place it seemed.

M&C: Do you think that the universe is telling producers to create a show with you and Josh Gates together?

Don Wildman: [laughing] Yes. It’s clear. It’s the wackiest thing that’s ever happened to me. I really like the guy and I hope the feeling is mutual. He’s a really good man and he’s much smarter than I am, I will say publicly. He’s got a great brain for putting together stuff. He’s also producing as well as starring in the show which is doubly hard.

I’ve done a little bit of that in my life and I choose not to do that as much because producing is really hard. I enjoy our organic, real friendship. I sought him [Josh Gates] out first. I called him up when I used to do a show on the History Channel and he was doing his on SyFy. We both lived in LA and I called the guy up. I just sort of found him on Facebook or something and we got together and had lunch.

It’s just been an ongoing kind of random occasion situation as we’ve gone along but we both talk about doing a show together. I’m not sure what we would do because he’s way off the charts in terms of what expeditions they do and stuff. I’m a little older than he is. I’m not really wanting to go scuba dive blindly into harbors in Thailand. I watched one of his shows one time and he was like searching for a bell in the middle of a muddy river.

I used to do that stuff. I’m like, I’ve already proved my mettle to myself. I don’t need to do it anymore. But I would be the guy who would stand in the museum and welcome him back from his derring-do: “Good, Josh. Have a drink. We’ll talk about this.”

M&C: Give me your favorite large city museums that you would recommend in a heartbeat to someone and your favorite obscure, smaller museums that people need to check out.

Don Wildman: Well, only because it’s … my favorite of all is to go to the British Museum. I love all of those London museums because they’re free and you just walk right in and it’s like, here’s the whole world on a platter thanks to the Victorian … thanks to the British Empire.

My other favorite, strangely, is now shutting down, which is the Cairo Museum in Cairo. I love that museum because it’s so mysterious. It’s kind of poorly labeled and bad signage and yet you’re looking at these cases of pure artifacts that were taken from the original expeditions.

There are hundreds of the little figurines and the little boats that they brought out from the tombs. It reminds you that we have so little understanding of the vastness of the archive that is the Egyptology archive. That’s my favorite subject. I love Egypt and want so much to do more about that. Cairo.

As far as an art museum, I would go straight for the Met in New York. The survey museums, that’s what you’re really asking me about. I think the large city museums are also the survey museums.

People walk into these things like on a Sunday afternoon as a tourist. They don’t realize they’re way over their head as soon as they walk in because these museums were designed to be visited over and over and over again when there wasn’t television and movies to go to and all of the other various distractions we have.

These museums were meant to be visited repeatedly so that you would experience these buildings gradually and piece by piece and become aware of the collection, let alone these different rooms. It’s a struggle for those places to make people understand that they shouldn’t feel so overwhelmed, they should just come back a lot more often.

Those are my favorite museums because of that experience. For me, less is more. I know I’m coming back because this is what I do for a living.

But it’s also a matter of people don’t get how cool these places are. You don’t want to do the whole thing. You just want to go to that wing today and think about ceramics in the mid-20th century, whatever it might be, and not try to eat the whole meal. You know?

M&C: Yeah, it can be overwhelming and people have this limited time. Better to focus, right? I mean, wouldn’t you advise someone to be just, like, “what is your interest” and then really explore that within the museum. It can be overwhelming when you travel.

Don Wildman: The psychology of museum-going fascinates me and I talk to a lot of museum people about it. I come from the user end. I didn’t go to school for museums and yet now I deal with people joyfully all the time who are museum studies people and they’re working so hard to try to figure out how this is going to go for the next 100 years.

When you think how much has changed in the way we divvy up our time in the last 20 years, it’s hard to imagine the British Museum 100 years from now and how these brick and mortar places that hold all these old artifacts actually remain relevant.

To me, it is the psychology of the museum visits. It’s all about that. If I go to a museum it’s the same as me going to a bookstore or a record store. I just get excited about the potential of life and the sparks that go off in my head and it’s all very liberating. I think a lot of people walk in and feel threatened because it’s a lot of stuff they don’t know and they don’t have any context of them and the answer to all that is less is more. Take it slowly but don’t deny yourself the gift.

M&C: I saw that you had the New York Minute in History, a podcast. Tell me everything. What are you doing?

Don Wildman: I feel a great fortune to be in the position I’m in where I get to tell people how cool history really is. That being said, I understand these days that’s a hard message to get for a lot of people.

My interest is finding the media that can make this information palatable and interesting and engaging for people. Mysteries at the Museum is in its 21st season right now. That’s over a period of about eight years. We did so many because the kind people at Travel Channel double ordered many of those seasons so we did a lot in a short amount of time because people ate it up.

That’s how I always describe the show as being kind of like a candy box. You have one eight-minute story and you just want another one and then you’re on to the third one after that. All these really good tastes keep going and before you know it, you’ve watched an hour of television that cruises into the next hour. People always describe it as that kind of experience.

That’s the ideal, where you make these stories as engaging as possible. On Mysteries, it’s always a human story behind the artifact. Some protagonist’s story that a person can relate to. There’s always a sort of a tipping point life or death moment or something like that.

In my other parts of my career, which — incidentally I started as an actor, that’s how far afield I am from what I originally intended to be — I’m trying to find a way to use this history stuff, the facts, in a performance medium. So I’m starting to call myself in my own head and I just thought of it yesterday, a “fact-or.”

I want to be able to perform this stuff and I want to do it live. I want to do live documentaries where people come and watch. I think that’s why Mysteries worked in a strange psychological way because there’s this guy and you might like him, you might not, whatever. But there’s a human being who’s presenting.

That presenter role being male or female, it doesn’t matter, is always a really interesting element. That’s what the evening news was about. There’s somebody telling you something that you could watch without somebody telling you something. That human connection like a teacher is really important. I like that role and I’m trying to develop that in different ways.

The podcast world is fascinating to me because I came from parents who were born in the 1920s and told me all about the golden age of radio when I was a kid. It’s that. Podcasting is essentially the second golden age of radio. I’m really excited about being in the middle of that and trying to develop history stories.

That particular one that you mentioned is out there and ready to be listened to. It’s kind of a pilot series at this point.

New York state has the only system of its kind in the country where all of the major parts, like there’s 1,200 community historians — this was started 137 years ago — they created a system so that the state of New York’s story would be told and pushed on for generations. So these 1,200 state historian positions are like, ‘oh, you’re the head of the Historical Society of Salem, New York, whatever and you’re the official community historian there.’

They all answer to the state historian who still exists. It’s a position within the State Museum of New York. That state historian and I produced this podcast with the local NPR station in Albany called WAMC. We’re just kind of testing it out. It’s kind of a tricky thing to do something with sort of government, but it’s also meant to be entertaining.

I love those challenges…when I first got into hosting I thought I’d be the host of The Bachelor. I went from an acting career to this and I just wanted to make a living.

I grew up on battlefields and going into historic houses with my father all my childhood. It’s such that I took to it like a duck to water. Here we are later and now I’m kind of thinking how to spend the rest of my life doing it because I so enjoy it.

Mysteries at the Museum begins Wednesday, August 29, 2018, with Terror Ship, Wicked Stepmother and Message in a Bottle at 9pm ET/PT on Travel Channel.

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